On May 8, 2013, 29-year-old firefighter Brian Woehlke was killed while attempting to control a fire at a strip mall in Westland. Woehlke, who lived in Dearborn with his wife Jennifer and their daughter, died when the roof of the structure collapsed. He had only been on the job for 10 months and was the first firefighter to die in the line of duty in Westland Fire Department’s history, so the tragedy hit particularly hard for those close to the well-liked hero.
“I did know Brian, but unfortunately I never had an opportunity to work with him,” fellow firefighter Kevin Caldwell says. “I remember him as always having a smile on his face and happy to come into work every day.”
As is so often the case when grief hits a town, the community has gathered to help the family and each other. A dinner and auction was held in Westland, hosted by the Fire Department, and now the punk community is getting together to pay its own tribute.
On Saturday, the ska-punk band The Suicide Machines will pay at the Magic Stick, ably supported by Wilson and Heads Will Roll. Caldwell and other members of the Westland Fire Department are grateful.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I have been involved with music my entire life, and for a group of people, any group of people, to recognize the hard work we put in every day is a huge compliment, and appreciated more than I can tell you,” Caldwell says. “I will be attending the show, and the turnout from my fire department is expected to be great.
“The excitement that has been expressed to me from the firefighters I have spoken to is overwhelming,” Caldwell continues. “The outreach and support from our fire department, the community, both ours and surrounding, and from unexpected avenues, like punk music, has been incredible.”
Caldwell said the focus is on helping his fallen comrade’s bereaved wife and daughter to ensure their financial future is secure. He made specific mention of the goodwill that comes with a fundraising event like this.
Suicide Machines bassist Rich Tschirhart had learned about Woehlke when he read about the incident in the newspaper.
“Ramona [Shureb, whose fiance works in the same department] got in touch with me,” Tschirhart says. “He was a young guy just like any guy that we all know and hang out with. He left behind a wife and kid, and Ramona’s pretty much a saint in our book. She doesn’t call asking for favors very often, and she’s like an unofficial sister to a lot of people. We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing for her and the rest of the firefighter family.”
Tschirhart said there was no hesitation when the call came in to help Woehlke’s widow and daughter.
“It’s one of those things where I hear people say that they get paid to risk their lives, things like that,” the bassist says. “To us, I don’t think the circumstances matter. What matters is that you take a step back and there’s a mother and a child who need help, and you help people.”
The official lifespan of The Suicide Machines was from 1991 to 2006, though they occasionally get together for good causes like this one.
“We’ve definitely gotten asked to play a lot of benefits and we try to do as many as we can because, for us, we’re not really a full time touring act,” Tschirhart says. “We don’t ever go looking for shows, and if somebody calls and asks if we want to do a festival and it looks like a fun thing to do, we’ll go do it. It’s no longer a moneymaking venture.
“For the benefits, if we can all do it and it seems like the right thing to do, then we do it. If the Descendents call us and ask if we want to open for them in New York City, we’ll be like, ‘Yeah.’ … Doing the benefit shows isn’t going to make us truckloads of money, so if we can help somebody, we’ll help them.”
That’s a quality that we should all hope to emulate. So what does the band have planned for the set?
“We were actually just talking about it,” Tschirhart says. “We’ve been playing a lot of ska stuff … so we’re thinking that we need to make up for it this time and play as much gnarly, loud, fast stuff and make up for all the ska. After that, we have nothing that is 100 percent confirmed.
“There are a couple of things in the works. We’ll be doing the Black Christmas show again, which Ramona and I set up last year. That’s going to happen, but we don’t have anything nailed down. We’re waiting to get done with this benefit, and then Ramona and I will sit and get our shit together for that one.”
Lest we forget, The Suicide Machines are not the only band donating their time that night.
“My other band, the A-Gang, has been playing with Wilson a lot lately and I love those dudes,” Tschirhart says. “I think they’re awesome. My favorite thing about them is how hard they work, so I feel like they’re going to be household names within a few years.
“We just saw their record release shows in Pontiac and Grand Rapids, and they were awesome. Love those guys. The only other band on the bill I’m aware of right now is Heads Will Roll, but that’s because I have an issue with paying attention to detail. There are probably other bands.”
As he says, and like the other Suicide Machines dudes, Tschirhart is in other bands, namely quirky punks the A-Gang. The man does like to keep busy.
“Things are going pretty good,” he says. “We just started working in the studio and we’re all pretty excited about it. So there’ll be new music from that. It probably won’t come out until the end of the year, but we’re working. Slowly but surely. Everybody’s got like 20 bands.”
Detroit punks — you’ve got to love them. They might be snotty and gloriously obnoxious, but they’ll work themselves into the ground — and many will run like Batman answering the bat-signal to help.
So come out to the Stick this weekend — you get to hear great music and also know you’re helping a family who really needs it — and honor a hero’s memory.
Sometimes, it’s about more than the music.
The Brian Woehlke benefit, featuring The Suicide Machines, Wilson and Heads Will Roll, takes place at the Magic Stick on Saturday, Aug. 3; 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.
Brett Callwood is a staff writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.